14 Career Lessons From This Female Powerhouse

14 Career Lessons From This Female Powerhouse

As managing director at advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, it’s fair to say Sarah Jenkins is at the top of the tree. Having worked her way up over the past 20 years, she’s learnt a thing or two about how to forge a successful – and fulfilling – career along the way. Here, she shares her most pertinent advice.

Don’t worry if your career isn’t something you feel you were ‘born to do’. At school, I loved writing, so I thought I wanted to be a journalist. But when I was doing my A-Levels, I stumbled across the field of advertising. The problem was, no-one I knew (in fact probably no-one in my town or perhaps even in my home county of Dorset) was in a similar field. Thankfully, I had good lecturers at college who encouraged me to think ‘up and out’, and not follow a more traditional profession like law. My parents were also super supportive. That’s probably why, after university, I had the confidence to move to London without a job – although I was determined to get one.

When you’re trying to get your first big break, persistence is key. After university, I wasn’t that successful in securing one of the usual graduate recruitment programmes. So, the summer after I graduated, I set about tracking down the names of 100 small agencies and wrote 100 letters. I got my first job within a week. Ultimately, it taught me the importance of resilience, determination and audacity.

The best advice I can give for interviews is to be yourself, and bring your best energy. My first interviews feel so long ago I’m not sure I remember them in any detail, but at my last agency I interviewed people pretty much every day. The best candidates were always interesting – they tended to have some inner steel and ambition, as well as being authentic and honest. They also had a natural curiosity and a willingness to learn.

At every stage of your career, networking is so important. It can be quite intimidating but there are a lot of brilliant networking initiatives, including mentoring and speed mentoring opportunities, springing up. Be brave, lean in and gradually grow your network and contacts – it then gets its own momentum and it all gets a lot easier.   

When it comes to being a good manager, kindness counts for a lot. In fact, it can be a superpower when you get it right. Talent is such a critical asset to all businesses and some organisations forget about that and forget the humanity element. Being kind is also about being honest, so it’s not all hugs and cups of teas. It’s about being clear on the standards you expect and ensuring your team can reach these expectations in a culture where they can be their best selves. 

In the world of work, adversity teaches you a lot. Being bullied out of an agency when I was much younger was about as horrific as it sounds. I didn’t have a big professional network at the time or any mentors. I’d speak to friends about it who weren’t in my industry and it was hard for them to realise all the micro-aggressions that were happening. Someone within the industry would have recognised them for what they were and helped me call it out. That said, I learned lots about myself and how to build teams and create a really strong positive agency culture as a result of a tough 12 months. I’m stronger for that unfortunate experience.

Building a more diverse and representative workplace is actually a very complex subject. Be curious – lean in and learn. Accept that no-one can become an expert overnight, but we all have to make sure we are open to learning. And if you are a leader, get as much data as you can – if you don’t know the problem, you can’t find the solution. Finally, make your commitment to create change public – we’ve just announced three big initiatives: Saatchi Ignite, a legacy partnership with schools; Saatchi Open, an entry-level programme for the next generation of talent; and Saatchi Home, affordable accommodation for entry-level talent. 

Decide what you want to learn and who you want to learn from – bring good energy and the success will come.

As a woman of colour, I’ve learnt that I am representing every time I walk into a room. It’s important to feel proud of that fact. It might mean you have to work harder in preparing for that meeting, or put pressure on yourself to make an impact in that meeting, but that’s how you move forward by being more prepared and more prepared to have a point of view. Also, I’ve come to realise there are many, many allies – there are some very crazy, very stupid people out there, but fortunately we’ve seen an increasing number of very loud anti-racists. Find people of colour and white people who have your back and you can lean on, build a supportive network around you and look to work in a business that has a progressive agenda and leadership. Know your values, find your tribe – friends or colleagues who you can talk to about anything – and work hard. 

The high points of your career are about the impact you have. I’ve worked with so many incredible and talented people on so many brilliant projects. I’ve been to advertising shoots all over the world, talked at the Houses of Parliament, and spent time in schools to look at the impact of creativity on the curriculum. It’s about making a positive dent not just on projects, but on people, too. 

Imposter syndrome is debilitating and it’s going to hold you back. This is often something I want to go back and tell my 20-year-old self. The good news is you can absolutely banish it. It’s just your brain trying to look after you, but in a really unbelievably unhelpful way. Get some coaching. Read Playing Big by Tara Mohr.

Try to start your day by prioritising what has to happen. My to-do list is long, so I try to start with just one or two things, rather than worrying about how to get 20 things done. Inevitably, most things still happen and you can end the day celebrating the one or two important wins, without beating yourself up about the other 18 things that may have not moved forward. It also takes practice. 

The key to finding balance is to set boundaries and form good habits. I’m actually pretty terrible at this but make sure your friends or partner call you out on breaking the rules you have set yourself, whether it be no emails after 8pm or going to the gym a certain number of times a week. Accountability is key. 

A fulfilling career isn’t one dimensional. These days, as a managing director, I get to work in a very talented leadership team alongside a CEO, chief creative officer and chief strategy officer. We are all responsible for delivering great creative work for our clients to help grow their business. We all bring our strengths and have specific areas of responsibility, but my specific remit is around talent and building a culture that people want to be part of it. But I’ve worked in advertising for more than 20 years, partnering with clients, understanding their business and making sure the agency is delivering great creative work. My previous roles have also had a big focus on new business and the marketing of the agency.

You can only enjoy success if you enjoy the ride. Choose a brilliant business to work in, decide what you want to learn and who you want to learn from – bring good energy and the success will come.  Also, a good organisation will always make sure you move forward.

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